Sunday, April 1, 2012

(Palm Sunday) Yes, Jesus WAS a political Messiah

"Where do we sign?" -- Palm Sunday: A cross-shaped covenant
Mark 11:1-11; Isaiah 50:4-9a; Philippians 2:5-11

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In Palm Sundays past,
I’ve been fond of pointing out, often,
how the triumphal entry, from the standpoint of the people,
was every bit a political march.
They had high hopes that this was the beginning of a political coup,
that Jesus was about to reclaim the palace and throne,
and get rid of Herod and Rome for good.
And I’ve been fond of pointing out, often,
that Jesus had a very different point of view,
that his kingship was completely different 
than what they were hoping for.

And all of that is true. I stand by those words.

But there’s another statement I’ve made on Palm Sundays past,
that I am hereby recanting, and repenting of.
Because I realize it simply isn’t true, as stated.
I have said, “Jesus was not a political Messiah.”

Today, I am correcting myself, and declaring to you that
“Yes, Jesus WAS, in fact, a political Messiah.”

Just a plain reading of the Gospel text makes this perfectly clear.

This parade was a political parade.
It was intended, from the start,
to be the walk into Jerusalem that set things right in society.
It was to be the beginning of a social and political revolution.
It was to be the beginning of the end of oppression.

If Jesus did not see himself as a political Messiah,
he would never have let the parade go on.
As a matter of fact, he encouraged it, facilitated it,
even initiated it.
He sent his disciples to fetch his steed,
humble colt, though it was.
He got up on it, of his own accord.
He allowed the people to spread their cloaks and leafy branches
on the road in front of him—
clear symbol of royalty, of kingship.
He allowed them to take up the political chants—
“Hosanna!” (That is, “Save us!”)
“Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David.”
Nothing more revolutionary than that.
Sounds like a threat, that Herod is about to fall.
And he did not try to shush them.
In fact, in another Gospel’s version of the story,
the Pharisees were so nervous about getting Herod upset,
they tried to get Jesus to quiet down the crowd,
but he would have none of that.
He let them shout on!

If we try to claim that this public act of Jesus and his followers
was not political, but only spiritual, or internal,
we are not being honest with the text.

Yes, the people did have the wrong idea about Jesus.
They were badly mistaken in their expectations.
But their mistake was not 
that they proclaimed Jesus as a political Messiah.
Their mistake was in misunderstanding 
the kind of politics Jesus stood for.
The way they envisioned the nature of Jesus’ kingship,
and the definition and character of his kingdom—
that’s where they went wrong. 
Way wrong.

Let me remind us of the meaning of the word, “political.”
Especially now, in this presidential election year,
“political” implies something very different
than what the word actually means.
Human beings are political by nature,
and we need to embrace that.
Politics is simply the way in which human beings
organize themselves into a cohesive social unit.
It comes from the Greek word for city, “pó-lis,”
and the related word for residents of the city,
or citizen, which is the word “po-lí-tes.”
The process by which any group of people decide
how to organize themselves,
how to distribute power and resources,
how to make decisions,
how to live together harmoniously,
that process is called “politics.”

The church is a political entity.
That’s just a fact.
We establish ways of making decisions and governing ourselves,
and living together.
We establish shared practices and expectations.
We mark our citizenship by baptism.
Park View Mennonite Church is a political body.
The Virginia Mennonite Conference and
Mennonite Church USA are political bodies.
To some degree, 
even the worldwide Christian church is a political entity.
There are practices and rituals, both social and religious,
that help us relate to each other in meaningful ways—
communion being one of the most political acts,
since it shapes us as a people.
We are citizens of a world-wide body not defined by
the politics or boundaries of any one sovereign state.
Nor defined, even, by the boundaries of any one
church institution or ecclesiastical body.

Simply by proclaiming that Jesus is Lord,
we are making a profound political statement.
We who claim to be loyal to the kingdom of God,
are claiming a particular political affiliation,
with the people of that kingdom, 
and their sovereign ruler.

But the politics of God’s kingdom
has a completely different basis
than the politics of any national government.
National and civic politics is about exerting social control,
reinforced ultimately by violence, or the threat of violence.
The politics of Jesus, the politics of the kingdom of God
is something different altogether.

Robert Webber and Steve Clapp, in a book they co-authored,
coined a phrase, “depth politics.”
Depth politics is what shapes a people’s vision and identity.
Depth politics is the way a people see the world
and understand their purpose in it.
Engaging in depth politics is attempting to influence
how people define “the good life.”
Jesus was the consummate depth politician.

Jesus called his followers to form a contrast community,
to show a better way of living in this world,
to demonstrate that living our lives together,
under the rule and reign of the living, Triune God,
fulfills our greatest potential as human beings.

Depth politics has no resemblance to partisan politics.
Partisan politics is adversarial.
It thrives on one-upmanship, manipulation, control.
The body of Christ operates on depth politics.
The church, when it is truly acting like church,
is formed by the politics of Jesus.
These are the kind of politics . . . that ended up with 
Jesus walking through the darkness of Passion Week,
toward the cross.
instead of walking down the red carpet under bright lights,
to take his seat in Jerusalem’s Oval Office.

The political character that Jesus willingly identified with,
during his march into Jerusalem as Messiah,
were politics of openness and hospitality,
of self-sacrificing love and compassion.
He rejected the politics of combating violence with violence,
of destroying others to save ourselves,
of grasping for power in order to control our own destiny.
He was a political Messiah,
but with a kind of politics the people were not expecting.

And the shouts of “hosanna” died away, quickly.
It’s little wonder the crowds turned on him by the end of the week.
Even the disciples were disappointed in Jesus.
The next day, after the victory parade,
Jesus walks into Jerusalem again,
and instead of storming the palace
and confronting Herod and his godless, violent regime,
Jesus went into the temple
and confronted his own people,
those selling animals for religious sacrifice.

That’s not to say Jesus wasn’t greatly concerned about Herod & Caesar.
You could hardly be a Jew in first-century Palestine,
and not have deep feelings about the Roman oppression.
But Jesus had a deeper concern.
His own people were losing their way.
It wasn’t Rome that was keeping them from living fully.
They were doing it to themselves.
They forgot what it meant to love and serve God
with their whole heart, soul, mind, and strength.
They had forgotten how to love and serve each other.
Their faith and their identity could survive and thrive,
even under the most brutal outside oppression.
But it wouldn’t stand a chance if they destroyed it themselves.

They were not treating each other with justice and compassion.
The wealthy were taking advantage of the poor.
The widows and orphans were not being cared for.
Those who had position and power were luxuriating in it.
And those without were getting stepped on.
And this injustice extended even inside the walls of the temple.
The money-changers were making a profit off the less fortunate,
right inside the temple.

Jesus looked on the city of Jerusalem
and saw a people “lost and without a shepherd”
a people divided along all sorts of religious party lines—
Sadducees, Pharisees, Zealots, Essenes, Herodians—
a people who forgot what held them together,
a people who lost sight of who they were,
a people too confused about their identity
to realize their biggest problem wasn’t Rome.
Their spiritual and ethical grounding
had eroded underneath their own feet.

But the only thing the people saw when they looked at Jesus,
was, “Here is the one who will deliver us from Rome.”
Here is our savior.
“Hosanna to the Son of David.
The new king of the restored nation of Israel.”

The politics of Jesus,
that shape us into a people who look first 
at our loyalty to God’s kingdom,
and then to our national loyalty only as a distant second,
that is not the kind of political stance
that is well-received by the powers of this world.

In his Messianic procession,
Jesus invited his followers to sign on 
to a new and different covenant,
not based on the claim of any nation-state—Rome or Israel.
This new political entity would not be based on 
the power of the sword,
but on the power of self-sacrificing love.

So after his ride into Jerusalem on a donkey’s back,
it became clear very soon where the ride would end.
At the cross.
Where all the powers of the world converged,
to squash the opposition.
But where God also showed up,
and began to fashion a new covenant people.
This would be a people formed around
a cross-shaped covenant,
not a sword-shaped covenant.

After the ride into Jerusalem,
after the cleansing of the temple,
there was a shift.
The tide turned against Jesus.
The shouts turned from “hosanna” to “crucify him.”

And we, too, as we begin our annual Holy Week journey of worship,
experience a shift.
This week is bracketed at both ends by two days of high praise—
Palm Sunday and Easter.

But let no Christian ever think 
they have done the necessary work of worship,
if they happily wave their Palm Branches today,
and then don’t give it another thought until next Sunday,
when we raise the roof with resurrection songs.
Because Jesus’ ride on the donkey is leading straight to the cross.
We must sit with that fact.
We must reflect on it.

The scriptures for today help us do that.
So far we have only read the texts of triumph.
Let us listen to the texts that turn us toward the cross.
First the words of Isaiah,
from chapter 50, verses 5 to 8a.
Here the word of the Lord, from the prophet Isaiah.

5 The Lord GOD has opened my ear, 
    and I was not rebellious, 
    I did not turn backward. 
6 I gave my back to those who struck me, 
    and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; 
 I did not hide my face 
    from insult and spitting.
7 The Lord GOD helps me; 
    therefore I have not been disgraced; 
 therefore I have set my face like flint, 
    and I know that I shall not be put to shame; 
    8 he who vindicates me is near. 

This was the mindset of Jesus,
when he made his entry into Jerusalem.
His face set like flint.
He knew what he was called to do.
He knew who he was called to be.
He was the servant of God.
And his job was to serve God’s purposes in the world.
To bring good news to the poor,
to free the oppressed,
to heal the broken,
to give sight to the blind,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Without regard to the coercive powers of this world.
No, it didn’t come easy.
As we know, he even prayed to be spared from it.
But he knew what needed to be done,
and called on his father for the strength to do it.

Much as we may not want to hear it, that is also our calling.

Let us now hear the word of the Lord,
as expressed by the apostle Paul in Philippians 2:5-11.

5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 
6 who, though he was in the form of God, 
    did not regard equality with God 
    as something to be exploited, 
7 but emptied himself, 
    taking the form of a slave, 
    being born in human likeness. 
 And being found in human form, 
    8 he humbled himself 
    and became obedient to the point of death — 
    even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him 
    and gave him the name 
    that is above every name, 
10 so that at the name of Jesus 
    every knee should bend, 
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 
11 and every tongue should confess 
    that Jesus Christ is Lord, 
    to the glory of God the Father.

Let the same mind be in us, that was in Christ Jesus.
The same mind.
That is an awesome calling.
An awesome responsibility.

It’s a responsibility and a calling
from we often fall.
May God have mercy on us, today and in this coming week.
Let us together confess our sins and our sinfulness.

—Phil Kniss, April 1, 2012

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